I named my daughter for a woman I never met. I only have a small picture of great grandmother Szerena. I’ve been told this is appropriate as my mom’s paternal grandmother was only about five feet tall in the high heels she wore even in her seventies. Szerena Adler came to America from a small town in Hungary in 1911. She traveled aboard the Carpathia, the ship that would later gain fame as the boat that rescued Titanic passengers.
My mom said she sounded a little like Zsa Zsa Gabor and a little like Liberace. I liked the name a lot. It suggested quiet, calm confidence, something I’ve always admired but only rarely achieved. Mostly I liked the story of her, the woman who picked up the pieces of the family when my great grandfather Paul died too young. I loved imagining the woman who had created a place for herself and my family in a strange land, daring to cross an ocean and find another life.
I have also been told she was not that religious. In the picture I have of her, she has six children but no sheitel, the head covering her more observant counterparts wear. Her dress is short and her look is defiant and open. Like her, I wear my Judaism lightly. If I were Catholic, I’d have to go to confession and admit to eating the occasional ham and cheese sandwich.
But a few times a year, I come back to it. Hanukah is one of the simpler holidays in Judaism. In Israel they celebrate by frying things in oil. The most popular fried thing is the sofganiyot or fried donut filled with custard or cream. Here in America, it gets far bigger press as American Jews compete with a shiny, bright Christmas. I like to plan for Hanukah primarily as an apology to my eldest daughter for having handed her one of those true childhood tragedies: the day after Christmas birthday.
So each year I bring out the silver menorah my mom left me. I pull it out of my closet along with the multicolored candles I keep there, careful not to reveal the presents I’ve hidden quite yet to my smiling family. My eldest daughter picks the ones she likes. We go to the stove to light them as I am scared of the potential combination of burning wood and my ability to trip over nearly anything. I bring out a Hebrew prayer book called a siddur and then begin the recitation of the three sweet prayers and the melodic traditional songs that mark the holiday each night.
After I’m done, I hold out my hands for a minute and look over the top of the candelabrah. For a few moments, I envision Grandma Szerena there each year. I see my mom next to her grandmother softly reciting those same Hebrew prayers. I say the words my grandmothers knew, the words my great grandmothers knew and all back across generations I cannot trace directly. The loving words my eldest daughter is learning to recite and the ones I hope she will gift to her own children even if I am not physically there to watch them.
Each year the darkness falls on us. We turn back that clock in November and with it we bring back darker mornings and evenings where the light disappears at 4:30 in an afternoon still young with promise. My Christian friends put their lights outside. I watch as our block fills up with beautiful colors and charming red and green patterns.
I sit here in my dining room for a few days and bring my own lights inside. The wax melts down into the small menorah candle holders for the eight days of this holiday Jews have celebrated for centuries. I let the light go from our table. The heat lingers for a moment and so do I, letting it mark the end of the year knowing that my Hanukah circle will always be there to hold me in the embrace of warmth that fills my heart, my hands and all the corners of my life.